Play is the sap and essence of childhood. And if there is one dark evil in this messed up modern world we have invented, it is the way we have taken free play away from children. We allow the evil octopus of school work to dominate more and more of their lives. We give them shiny screens and machines when they are not learning. We co-opt their play into brain enrichment activity or some other such euphemism for control. We need our heads examined.
Would anyone in their right minds choose this vision of childhood?
Summerhill has always defended children’s right to play. It is one of the basic policy statements that children’s free play is good in itself. You don’t need to measure it, approve it, time it, sanction it or attempt to improve it. Free play is not the same as play-like activities dressed up to make learning more palatable. It is not the same as sport or games or any other organised activity. Children can be dead serious in their play: it is netiher trivial or meaningless. It is not always fun.
If you see a child who does not know how to play your heart fills with sadness: it is as unnatural as a cat with two heads. Yet school does this to children. When my younger brother and sister started going to school they stopped playing. They came in from school and put the cartoons on the TV. This was startling to me because they had a rich play life before. It took them hours to get over school and get back into play. I don’t put this down to normal tiredness- I put it down to the stultifying regimentation of school.
Children at school are shuttled around from place to place in groups, they have to line up and be orderly, suffering the harsh words of their teachers if they step out of line or getting bored as they wait for the umpteenth time for the one child who doesn’t get it to put his pencil where it really should be. At school everything is measured and evaluated. If a child does not feel the presence of the all-seeing eye at every turn he is exceptionally dense.
Some people see this as a good training for life. “It is necessary,” they say, “for children to realise that there are rules and procedures and that they need to respect authority and do things when they are told to.” I prefer the Summerhill model where children learn the difference between freedom and licence and where all authority comes from the Meeting, but I cannot deny that the methods of school go on repeating themselves through later life. It is a method that squashes play.
It seems to me that there are many ways of training a child for life. If you insist on making him obedient and polite then you will end up with one kind of world. If you respect his play as another kind of training for life you will end up with another world. I would even say that a playful life is possible: it does not have to be a grey vale of tears and suffering. Do we not have the sense, with all our technology and nick-nacks, to make a world that is humane to live in?
The paradox today is that adults, perhaps because they were forced into adult concerns too early, are more than ever addicted to puerile gaming: theme parks, computer games, escapist entertainment. The question of free play follows quite naturally my previous post on maturity. If we make our generation of children “good at schoo”- to the exclusion of almost everything else- we are going to end up with a generation of lousier leaders than the ones we have had to suffer up to now. Read William Deresiewicz’s thoughtful book “Excellent Sheep” if you want a sustained examination of the idea.
But none of that is really relevant to the case. I defend children’s play because it is good in itself,not because it is a preparation for a later stage in their lives. I think organized play, teacher or parent-led play, organized sport, edutainment, commercially-packaged gaming and any other hi-jacking of play are poor substitutes and, if we only thought about the love we have for our children, we would leave them alone to play by themselves.